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Loyola cancer patient continues to give after receiving life-saving bone marrow transplant from brother

It’s the season of giving. It’s the time of year when we pause to think of those we love and reach out to help someone we might not even know. For Michelle Salerno, a Lombard, Ill. resident, the perfect gift came early this year. On March 9, her brother Joey gave her 5 million of his own stem cells, a gift that has given Michelle Salerno hope, a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream and an opportunity to help others with their cancer struggles.

“Growing up, Joey and I really weren’t that close,” Michelle Salerno said. “He was the oldest, so he left for college when I was still young, and he was in the military so distance made it difficult. When he found out I had cancer, everything changed. He’s my best friend, whether he knows it or not.”

In 2002, Michelle Salerno’s life came to a screeching halt when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The prognosis wasn’t good, but Michelle Salerno was ready to fight and so were the staff of the Loyola Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, led by her oncologist, Dr. Tulio Rodriguez.

“Dr. Rodriguez would always tell me that I’m not dying any sooner than the rest of the people living. He never gave up on me. There was always a Plan B, something else to try,” Michelle Salerno said.

For Salerno, Plan B was a series of stem-cell transplants, rigorous chemotherapy and clinical trials. When a transplant of her own cells failed, she was told she needed a donor.

“I will never forget the expression on Dr. Rodriguez’s face when he told me my oldest brother was a match. Joey was a 10 out of 10 match!” Salerno said. “Joey never even hesitated when he learned he could help. He was happy, relieved knowing there was something he could do.”

But the joy was short-lived. The first transplant in 2004 didn’t work. After 100 days of isolation, a CT scan revealed her brother’s cells had worked with the cancer instead of against it.

“Michelle is a fighter. She is an exceptional person and wasn’t ready to give up. Neither was I. She would do her research and so would I. We’d bring our ideas and discuss different treatment options,” Dr. Rodriguez said.

Michelle Salerno underwent seven more years of chemotherapy and tried every known type of treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but her bone marrow still wasn’t working properly. She was coming to Loyola every two to three weeks to receive blood and platelet transfusions.

“I was exhausted and at times I didn’t even know what was going on, but I wouldn’t give up. When one treatment didn’t work, we’d try something else. I knew I could always come back to Loyola and they would find something else. They give me hope. I know they’re fighting for me, too,” Salerno said.

Dr. Rodriguez then approached Salerno about being part of a trial for a new drug called Brentuximab Vedotin (SGN-35), a treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma patients who have relapsed. Before she could join the trial she needed a stem-cell boost to repair her bone marrow. Salerno knew her brother would be there in an instant, but since he lived in Bethesda, Md., she didn’t want him to have the extra financial burden of purchasing an airline ticket.

The miracles continued. Southwest Airlines donated open-ended tickets for Loyola to give to its cancer patients, helping them receive the support and care they need. Thanks to Southwest, Salerno’s brother flew in for the transplant and was able to stay to offer emotional support. But the best news was that this time the transplant worked.

“When we started this process, I told Michelle that we didn’t know what the outcome could be. This was a new therapy and there was no guarantee that it would help. It could even make her condition worse, but she was ready to give it a try. By being a part of this trial she has kept the gift of life going. She has offered herself to help strangers who in the future will find out they have this disease, but now will have additional options for treatment thanks to Michelle,” said Rodriguez.

The combination of an effective transplant and the new treatment has exceeded expectations. Salerno is the healthiest she has been in years, even fulfilling a lifelong dream to go to France, which she did this past fall. She still comes to Loyola every three weeks to receive an infusion of the new drug, but her life has been transformed.

Salerno’s experience is not only benefiting the cancer patients of tomorrow, it’s helping those fighting today. After more than two years of wearing a Hickman catheter, she designed the Joey Pouch (www.joeypouch.com), named in honor of her brother. It holds the tubes that dangle from a central venous catheter, making patients more comfortable. This soft pouch is given as a gift to Loyola cancer patients who can benefit from it.

“It’s amazing to see the change in Michelle. In 2003, she was so sick and suffered for so long and now she is able to enjoy life,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “It’s not just about fighting a disease; it’s about making sure someone has a good quality of life.”

“I can’t say ‘thank you’ enough. To Loyola, to Southwest, and especially to my brother. You have truly saved my life,” Salerno said.

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